Volvo Ocean Race

The Volvo Ocean Race (VOR) is a round the world yacht race, covering around 30,000 nautical miles over a period of approximately eight months. Split into approximately eight to eleven legs, this is one of the most gruelling long-distance sailing challenges in the world. Previously known as the Whitbread Round The World Race, the VOR has taken place every four years since 2001. Often described as “the Everest of sailing”, the race does not attract a cash prize for the winning crew – the feat of competing in the race being sufficient reward for the yachtsmen (and yachtswomen) who take part.

History

In the early 1970s, a race was devised to follow the route of the old square riggers, which had carried goods around the world in the 19th century. These boats declined with the advent of steam and the building of the Suez Canal, but the romanticism and adventurous nature of the boats lived on. In the 19th century, speed was necessary to ensure goods reached the market quickly and made the manufacturer and the skipper a good profit. The Whitbread Round The World Race hoped to keep this spirit of honourable competition and rivalry alive.

The Race was first held in 1973, and every four years thereafter. In 1997-98, already the sponsors of the overall prize, the Scandinavian car producer Volvo negotiated ownership and management of the whole event. In 2001, the first Volvo Ocean Race took place, a much more high-profile and commercial event than the Whitbread. With cutting edge technology and massive investment in media, communications and management, the nature of the race had changed forever. The VOR website sums up the change:

"The days when cocktails at dusk or eggy bread and bacon for breakfast filled pages of the ships logs were definitely over. There was not even much evidence of what the crews, all hardened professionals, were feeling as they swept through waters that in the old days had seemed terrifying. If there was any fear or exhilaration, the voices at sea had no problem in disguising it. The focus had shifted resolutely to tactics, weather and ultimately to winning."

Race Winners
Race Year (The Whitbread) Boat Nationality
1973-74 Sayula II Mexico
1977-78 Flyer The Netherlands
1981-82 Flyer The Netherlands
1985-86 L’Esprit d’Equipe France
1989-90 Steinlager 2 (New Zealand)
1993-94 NZ Endeavour New Zealand
1997-98 EF Language Sweden
Race Year (Volvo Ocean Race) Boat Nationality
2001-02 Illbruck Challenge Germany
2005-06 ABN Amro The Netherlands

Race organisation and objectives

The Route

The race begins in Europe, traditionally on Britain’s South coast, though the departure point in 2005-06 was Alicante in Spain and the 2008-09 race will depart from Vigo, also in Spain. Despite the race organisers determining the precise stages for each VOR, the race follows roughly the same route around the globe on each occasion.

On the first leg, the boats head south to the Cape of Good Hope, then cross the Southern Ocean to reach Australia. The third leg generally centres on Australasia, before the fourth leg takes the yachts across the Pacific Ocean to reach South America. Rounding Cape Horn, the race continues up the East coast of South America, with a stopover in the eastern USA. Then it’s time for the home leg – across the Atlantic back to Europe, to complete the round the world voyage. Legs vary greatly in length – from 200 to 8000 nautical miles (equivalent to 230 – 9200 miles).

You can check out previous routes and the proposed legs of the 2008-09 race on the Volvo Ocean Race website.

Boats and crews

The vessels used in the VOR are Volvo Open 70s (VO70s), the world’s fastest monohull racing yachts. These are fast, light boats weighing between 12,500kg and 14,000kg.

To ensure safety without compromising speed, the VO70s have canting keels. This provides ballast without adding excess weight, and its use in the 2005-06 race gave a 30% improvement in speed compared with the previous race. The system works by having a ballast bulb suspended 5 metres below the boat. The bulb weighs around 7000kg and enables the keel to be canted to 40 degrees to the windward side. This makes the vessel incredibly stable while still allowing speeds of up to 30 knots.

As well as determining the type of vessel, the race organisers place restrictions on the weight distribution, appendages and construction materials used for the boat. Compliance is overseen by the Rule Management Group (RMG), and each vessel must obtain a certificate from the chief measurer prior to commencement of the race.

On occasions, last-minute modifications have been made to the vessels late into the night on the day before the race departs. Lack of time to test these adjustments in the water have led to serious problems on several occasions – in the 2005-06 VOR, two boats had to abandon the first leg due to structural problems arising from untested modifications.

The intention of the race rules is to ensure the VOR continues to produce "fast, single mast, monohull keelboats of similar performance, suitable for long distance racing offshore at the highest level of the sport".

The crew must consist of:

  • No more than 11 members, where less than 5 are female
  • No more than 12 members, where at least 5 are female and at least 1 is male
  • No more than 14 members, for an all female crew.

1989-90 saw the first all-female crew take part in the Whitbread, the British boat being skippered by Tracy Edwards, who was later to receive an MBE for her services to sailing. The VOR remains male-dominated, however, and in the 2005-06 race the only female crew member, Adrienne Cahalan, was sacked after the first leg. When asked why she was dismissed, one team-mate commented that "With these boats you need ten people to sail them, and if you have nine and a half it’s not quite ten."

Scoring

Points are awarded at the end of each leg, depending on the position of each boat. If 15 vessels were competing, the first to cross the finish line would receive 15 points, the second to arrive would get 14 points and so on.

Points are also available at gates, which are half-way points on the long ocean legs. In a 15-boat race, the first vessel through the gate would receive 7.5 bonus points. Finally, In Port racing was introduced in 2005-06 and is intended to make the fleet race much shorter distances between the stopover ports. Unlike the long ocean legs, which are far from shore, the In Port racing allows spectators to witness the power and performance of the VO70s as well as providing sponsors and media with excellent access to the race.

The overall Volvo Ocean Race winner is the boat with the most points, the other contenders being ranked accordingly thereafter. If boats are tied, the boat with the most first place awards (in both the Legs and In Port Races) wins. For full details and the most up-to-date amendments, see the latest VOR Notice of Race.

As well as the Leg, In Port race and overall trophies, awards are made throughout the VOR for a variety of achievements, including the longest Great Circle distance achieved in 24 hours (in each Leg and overall), the fastest Boat between a location or gate off the New Zealand coast and Cape Horn (the Roaring Forties Trophy), and a Communication Prize for each Leg and Overall.

Further information

To watch documentaries about previous editions of the VOR, and find out more about the history of the race, visit the Volvo Ocean Race TV site.

For live and exclusive (and free) race coverage during the 2008-09 race, visit the “live” section of the same website.

To see the detailed schedule and map for the 2008-09 VOR, visit the Race Schedule pages on the VOR website.